Like tens of thousands of young Americans who came of age during World War II, I first saw the world through military travel. San Diego seemed the loveliest city I could imagine, even with its harborfront camouflaged for war and Japanese mini-subs prowling offshore. Netting soared over highways and the Convair aircraft plant. The sidewalks thronged with young men and women in Navy blue and Marine Corps green, phoning family and friends, pledging devotion, and promising to get home soon. Far too many never did.
When the war ended, I saw no reason to leave this hospitable harbor town. My parents in North Carolina were astonished by my decision. How could I explain to them that San Diego seemed startlingly absorbed with pleasure and innovation? Or that I was enchanted with the city’s graceful hills and its oases of palm trees, with soil held in place by a spiky succulent called ice plant? And sandy beaches hidden among seacliffs? All-year gardens were draped with gaudy blooms of bougainvillea and Christmas-red poinsettias. The Mexican influence was alluring. I adopted carnitas and cerveza. Tijuana, 17 miles to the south, was that era’s Las Vegas, attracting gamblers and racing fans from Hollywood.
San Diego grew rapidly following World War II. Yet its mood remained that of a small town until the rise of the University of California at San Diego in the 1960s. High-tech research teams arrived. In this optimistic haven, it seemed easy to attract prominent scientists. Jonas Salk, at the pinnacle of celebrity after announcing the polio vaccine, deserted Manhattan and retained the architect Louis Kahn to build his monumental laboratory on a La Jolla cliff. One day as we walked around that campus, I asked Salk why he had come West. He looked out to sea and said, “I see San Diego as an empty canvas on which to paint my dreams.”
These days, San Diego is a confident city, no longer waiting to be discovered. Its position at the southwest corner of the United States was long regarded as a handicap. Now it is seen as a novelty, a business and tourist enticement; it is a reasonably safe and comfortable city along one of the busiest international borders in the world. Natural crises such as wildfires seem only to accentuate the sense of community. It is where I know I am at home.
NEIL MORGAN, retired editor of the San Diego Tribune, is senior editor of the news website, voiceofsandiego.org. He is the author of 12 books, including Westward Tilt and The California Syndrome.
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